FIRST IN TIME, FIRST IN RIGHT
–Colorado’s First Inter-basin Water Transfer and the Coffin vs. Left Hand Ditch Water Case
How did an 1879 water conflict in the Left Hand Creek headwaters come to influence water law in nine western states? Not long after the 1859 Colorado Gold Rush, farmers began settling on the plains near today’s Longmont and Boulder. To irrigate their crops in the semi-arid environment, they drew water from the creeks flowing down from the mountains.
By 1860 farmers near Haystack Mountain had filed for water rights on Left Hand Creek and received Court decrees approving them. In the dry summer of 1863 Left Hand Creek dried up. Joseph Jamison and Porter Pennock investigated and found a place, 0.7 mile west of the Peak to Peak Highway near Ward, at the headwaters of James Creek (a Left Hand Creek tributary), where they could construct a short (0.3-mile) ditch to divert water from South St. Vrain Creek into James Creek.
The Left Hand Ditch Company obtained a water right to construct the ditch, which became the first inter-basin water transfer in Colorado. Over the next few years the ditch was enlarged and a small dam was built across South St. Vrain Creek.
In the dry summer of 1879, Reuben Coffin, a farmer along St. Vrain Creek near Longmont, noticed that St. Vrain Creek had gone dry. Upon investigating upstream with a party of nine, he found the dam that diverted all the water from South St. Vrain Creek into James Creek. Believing that their ownership of land along St. Vrain Creek gave them the right to use the natural flow of water in the creek, the men breached the dam, putting water back into South St. Vrain Creek. They also left an armed party at the site, in keeping with the famous western quote, “Whiskey is for drinkin’, and water is for fightin’”.
Instead of gunplay, Left Hand Ditch Company filed suit against Coffin and his men for trespass, seeking damages and an end to the dam breaching. The Boulder County District Court found in favor of Left Hand Ditch Company, but in 1880 Coffin and his associates appealed the case to the Colorado Supreme Court. The 1882 ruling in that case affirmed Left Hand Ditch Company’s right to make the inter-basin diversion, based on their prior claim and their putting the diverted water to beneficial use in their fields along Left Hand Creek.
This ruling laid to rest the idea, which had originated in England and the eastern States, that streamside (riparian) landowners automatically have a right to use the water in the stream. Instead, it solidified, once and for all, the Prior Appropriation (or “Colorado”) doctrine as the basis for water law in Colorado.
Following Colorado’s lead, eight other western States: Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming incorporated the Colorado doctrine into their water laws, echoing the call of “First in time, first in right”. And to this day, most of the time the Left Hand Ditch Company continues diverting South St. Vrain Creek water into this historic ditch and hence into James and Left Hand Creeks.